There wasn’t any time to come up with a plan of attack. There wasn’t even enough time to begin thinking about a plan. The amateur painter was walking in our direction, long legs eating up the distance at an alarming rate. He’d be close enough to see us in less than a minute. Whatever we were going to do, we’d have to do it before then.
Devlin was still talking to Mila. “No, I don’t think they’ll attack us until we hit them first.”
Silence, while she voiced her opinion. I should have brought our remaining earbuds. At the earliest opportunity, I was going to have to get my hands on another set for the entire team.
“Not an option,” Devlin said. “Someone’s trying to kill him, Mila; even if we don’t need him ourselves, that still implies he knows something worth hiring assassins for.”
More silence. The amateur painter drew closer to the two of us. Devlin tugged on my arm, so that we stood slightly off of the path. We were still perfectly visible, but at least we weren’t so obviously watching the proceedings anymore. I figured that might buy us a moment or two to coordinate.
“I’m not thrilled about it either,” Devlin said into the phone. “But it is what it is. We’re at the center of the park; how long do you think it’ll take you to get here? Without alerting any other potential spotters that you’re here?”
Whatever answer she gave him wasn’t satisfactory. He frowned and shook his head.
“It’ll have to do. Make it happen. Tell Michel to keep the car on. I’m not willing to assume these are the only hired guns in the area.”
I waited until Devlin returned the phone to his pocket before I spoke. “What does she think?”
“Exactly what you’d expect,” Devlin said. “She thinks we should stay out of whatever this is, for the moment. Maybe follow the assassins back to wherever they came from, on the off-chance that we could figure something out based on their point of origin.”
If we waited, the woman with the stroller would kill Barrett. She might already have completed that grisly task.
Mila was simply being practical, which was her job. Barrett wasn’t a part of our team, nor was he was an old friend like Alex and his daughter. People in our line of work met unfortunate ends all of the time. It was just an asset of the business that one had to accept. Exposing us to greater risk would be foolish, especially since we knew nothing about Barrett’s true motivations. The smart move was to watch, to wait until we knew more.
Did that go against Mila’s stated advice? Wasn’t it better to act, than to wait?
This was a different scenario than any she’d intended, probably. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that we should help Barrett, wisdom and circumspection be damned.
Devlin hadn’t received Mila’s lecture, so I knew that her words weren’t affecting his thoughts like they were mine. Still, I knew him well enough to anticipate his answer before he even pursed his lips to speak it out loud.
“We’re saving him, though,” he said. “Whoever is trying to kill him has to be doing so for a reason. If we assume that there aren’t any coincidences, maybe he knows some useful information.”
“And,” I added, “it wouldn’t hurt to have a cat burglar owing us a favor.”
Devlin made an noncommittal noise in his throat, but neither agreed or disagreed with me using words. “Mila’s on her way, but she’ll be too late to help.”
“Where does that leave us?”
The amateur painter reached the apex of the path. He expertly flipped the not-paintbrush in a manner that concealed its metallic tip against his forearm, waved at us with his other hand, and set up his easel again. He was sitting at an angle that kept any passers-by from looking at his work, but that still afforded him a wide field of vision. He’d be able to see anyone approaching from either direction on the path. Coupled with the joggers taking up position at the far end of the path, practically on the opposite side of the enclosure Barrett had slipped into, it would be very difficult to sneak up on any of them.
“Three spotters,” Devlin said under his breath, without moving his lips. “At least, three that we know about. One in there with him. We’ll have to neutralize the spotters or run the risk of them calling for reinforcements.”
“Reinforcements?” The question came out a little louder than I’d intended it to. I turned my back to him, so that he couldn’t read my lips. “Why would there be reinforcements?”
“Can’t assume anything right now,” Devlin said. His voice was growing colder, more distant. It wasn’t a full transformation into the arctic, dispassionate version that appeared on difficult jobs; this seemed more like a cousin or a relative to that individual. Someone capable of making hard choices, but who still remained aware of why those choices were difficult to begin with.
“What are you thinking?”
He didn’t answer immediately. Devlin swept his eyes over our surroundings, taking in the details that he hadn’t cared about at first. I could practically hear the gears spinning to full power in his head, as he went through a dozen different options in an instant.
“A distraction,” he said finally. He focused his eyes on me. “I need you to give me a distraction.”
I opened my mouth to protest – how was I supposed to safely distract a member of a hit squad? – but that protest died on my lips when I glimpsed the determination in Devlin’s bearing. He’d analyzed the situation in a heartbeat and, using those same skills I complained about and lauded in equal measure, made a decision. For better or worse, he’d decided. I could either stall or I could trust in his intuition.
Put that way, it wasn’t a difficult choice to make.
“For how long?” I asked.
He shrugged and fished around in his pocket for something. “You’ll know. Trust me.”
Devlin watched the amateur painter intensely for a few moments. When the painter’s attention shifted elsewhere, Devlin slipped away, off of the path and into the bushes.
I stood there, dumbly, for a handful of seconds that seemed like minutes. Devlin hadn’t bothered to explain what he’d be doing while I distracted the amateur painter. Likely, he didn’t even know yet. That would be just like him.
Gathering my willpower and courage took just long enough for me to start feeling the now-familiar mixture of adrenaline and anxiety trickling into my veins. I stepped down on the anxiety, but allowed the heady, intoxicating rush of adrenaline to fill me with energy. Action. I had to commit to action.
I walked up the amateur painter, plastering a fake smile on my face as I approached. When I was only a few steps away, the man’s head snapped around and fixated on me.
“What’re you working on?” I asked cheerfully. I could only hope that the nervous tremor in my voice wasn’t as noticeable to him as it was to my own ears.
The amateur painter paused, seemingly considering what the best response might be. “A landscape,” he said finally. I didn’t have Devlin’s ear for accents, but even I recognized a European accent when I heard one. The specific country eluded me, though.
“I used to do a little landscape painting myself,” I said, speaking as quickly as the lies came to me. “The parks were a lot more urban where I’m from, though.”
The amateur painter gave me a weak smile and nodded. If he’d been a regular person, I would have taken those gestures as universal signs of forced politeness. But I’d seen with my own eyes that what he held against the canvas wasn’t a paintbrush. And I’d told Devlin that I would give him a distraction.
“You don’t mind if I take a look at what you’ve got, do you?” I asked. I took a half step forward, hesitant to get even closer to the amateur painter and his weapon, but unable to figure out any other way to force him to pay attention to me. “Might be able to give you a little advice, if you’re willing to listen.”
Immediately, he pivoted so that the easel and canvas were between the two of us. “No! I mean…no, please. I am very shy.”
“No reason to be shy,” I said, forcing myself to take another step forward. Now, I was certain that he’d be able to hear the tremor in my voice. “We’re both artists. I’m just curious, is all.”
“No, no. I would be too embarrassed to -”
I was close enough to the amateur painter to reach out and touch him. Instead of extending a hand to him, however, I touched the painting itself. My fingers had barely touched the canvas when the amateur painter pushed the entire easel in my direction. Canvas and wooden tripod alike caught me by surprise and I stumbled backwards a few feet before falling on my butt.
I saw two things. First, the discarded canvas was mostly empty white space, except for a pinned photograph in the center. Barrett’s photograph, along with writing in a language I didn’t speak, was prominently displayed there. I took that as confirmation that, whoever these people were, someone had sent them after the cat burglar specifically.
Second, I finally got a clean look at the amateur’s “paintbrush:” an eight inch long stiletto, sharpened and honed to a vanishingly small point. The amateur wrapped his fist around the handle, gripping it like a blackjack more than a knife.
“I am sorry,” he said to me. “But you have seen too much now.”
He couldn’t see what I could, though. On my back, staring up at him as he approached with weapon in hand, I was in a unique position to spot a third thing.
Using my distraction, Devlin had sneaked through the bushes like a shadow, completely silent and unseen. When the painter stepped toward me, stiletto raised over his head for a strike that would end my life, Devlin stepped out of concealment. His arm snaked around the painter’s throat, forearm pressed tightly against the man’s neck, and pulled back. Caught off guard and off balance, the painter panicked for just a moment…and a moment was all Devlin needed.
Devlin leaned backwards, using his weight and leverage to haul the painter off of his feet. His forearm pressed deeper into the painter’s throat and windpipe, cutting off any cry of alarm the man may have issued. The two struggled with each other but Devlin had positioned himself perfectly. The painter couldn’t use his stiletto against a target he couldn’t see and, with his feet off of the ground, he couldn’t manage to raise a sufficient defense. Devlin applied more pressure, straining with the effort. After a few moments of silent conflict, the painter slumped into unconsciousness.
Devlin didn’t release his hold. He dragged the painter’s limp body off of the path, then quickly fiddled with something I couldn’t quite make out. When he finished, he stepped out of the grass and bushes, breathing heavily
“What are we going to do when he wakes up?” I asked.
“I used my belt to tie his hands,” Devlin said, “and gagged him with some fabric. That won’t keep him out of commission for long, but at least it gives us a little bit of a window.”
I hadn’t noticed the frayed edges of Devlin’s shirt before, but I could see now that he’d ripped off one sleeve at the elbow. I’d only given him a few seconds’ worth of distraction and he’d come up with that idea to incapacitate one of the spotters? Nonlethally, no less?
“Good thinking,” I said.
He flashed a tight, tense smile at me. “I do what I can. Come on, we’re on the clock.”
Devlin took point and I was happy to let him do it. With one of the three spotters out of commission, an opening presented itself. We made our way closer to where Barrett and the woman with the stroller were. Miraculously, neither of the two joggers noticed us. They were obviously depending on their cohort to warn them of any trouble approaching from our direction. Devlin angled us so that we’d eventually have the entire enclosure between us and the joggers, just to be safe.
When we reached the concealing wall of hedges, Devlin gestured for me to come closer. “Something’s not right,” he said.
“You think?” I whispered back.
He gave me a significant look, but didn’t comment on my sarcasm. “Why the knives?”
“What are you talking about?”
“There are four of them,” Devlin said, “and only one of him. They have the drop on him and we’re nowhere near anybody else who isn’t specifically looking for this place. So, why the knives?”
“I’m not understanding your point, Dev,” I said.
“They could easily just kill him, if that’s what they wanted,” Devlin said. “Ambush him as soon as he lets his guard drop, shoot him in the head, and just walk away without raising the alarm. It wouldn’t be difficult.”
As bothered as I was by Devlin’s casual discussion of the best way to kill someone, I wasn’t overly surprised that his thoughts had tuned themselves in that direction. Assassins, hitmen, and the roughest sorts of underworld denizens were becoming increasingly commonplace in our day-to-day lives. Mila couldn’t be the only one of us to take those threats seriously.
Devlin shook his head, visibly dismissing his ponderings, and refocused his attention on the hedges in front of us. With excruciating caution, he parted some of the foliage so that he could peek into the enclosure. I looked over his shoulder, squinting through the leaves and branches to see what I could, as well.
Inside, Barrett and the woman in the stroller were having a conversation. Neither seemed particularly uneasy, although I did notice that the woman was no longer holding her silenced handgun. They weren’t whispering, probably due to an assumption of privacy, and that allowed me to strain my ears and catch what they were saying.
“That wasn’t the deal,” Barrett said to the woman. “I acquire your boss’ trinket; in exchange, he points in the direction of the people I’m looking for.”
“Deals change,” the woman said. She had the same accent as the amateur painter. “Things are happening that we did not anticipate. As such, we have to be flexible.”
Barrett shook his head. “People only start talking about flexibility when it comes time to pay up. If your boss isn’t going to hold up his end of the arrangement, I don’t see what else we’ve got to talk about.”
The woman held up a hand before Barrett could turn more than a few degrees away from her. “Think about this,” she said. “The item wouldn’t be of any use to you, anyway. Why not discuss this rationally, so that everyone can come away from this with what they wanted?”
“Because this isn’t a discussion,” Barrett said. “It was a business arrangement. An arrangement, I might add, that your boss decided to go back on. Just because the item isn’t worth anything to me doesn’t mean it isn’t worth anything to anyone. I can get what I’m looking for another way.”
The woman in the stroller shifted her weight, so that it was mostly on her back foot. “So you have never decided to change things up? Even just to protect yourself?”
“A deal’s a deal,” Barrett repeated. “I showed up with what we discussed and he didn’t. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a flight to catch. If I’m not getting payment, I don’t see any particular reason for me to stay in this city.”
He turned to leave. As he did so, the woman knelt and pulled the knife free from her boot. She took two long steps forward, brought the knife up, and then stabbed directly at Barrett’s unprotected back.
I opened my mouth to cry out, but she was too close and moving too quickly. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
Even though she’d moved without making a sound, even though he couldn’t possibly have seen her with his back facing her, Barrett responded to the attack with a fluid grace that defied believability. He stepped to one side, allowing the knife to pass harmlessly through the air where his torso had been, and lashed out with a swift kick at the woman’s front knee. She wasn’t able to change her balance quick enough to dodge, so Barrett’s attack connected solidly. She buckled as she reversed the knife and brought it up again in a second attack.
Barrett was ready for that one, too. He caught the woman’s wrist in his right hand and delivered a sharp chop to her elbow with his left hand. Her arm folded at the point of impact and, using the momentum and his own superior mass, Barrett forced the knife up into her abdomen. He released the knife and her arm at the same time, so that he could cover her mouth and ease her to the ground.
“Probably don’t want to take that out,” he said. “There’d be a lot of bleeding and I don’t think you’ll make it very far with that kind of a hole in your stomach.”
She gurgled something in response. I couldn’t make it out.
“Well, trying to kill someone is about as personal as you can get,” Barrett said, “but I’m not in the business of leaving bodies behind me. Where’s your gun?”
He patted down the woman until he found her handgun. He dropped the clip out and forced the chambered bullet out, then dropped the weapon at her side.
“Your friends will have to get you to the hospital,” he said. “Don’t come looking for me or you won’t leave me any option but to finish the job. Got it?”
He stood up, dusting himself off, while the woman desperately clutched at the knife in her stomach. Then, Barrett turned and looked directly at Devlin and me.
“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” he said. “Do you have a car?”
My mouth was too dry to form a response, but Devlin managed one for us both. “Sure, we’ve got a ride. Have you got answers as to what the hell is going on here?”
“Mind if I catch a lift, then?” Barrett asked. “Something tells me that I’m not going to be very welcome around here for long and I’d be more than willing to share, if you are.”